Lake Ontario Fish Species

There were 68 fish species collected in the lake proper surveys of the 1970's but currently experts say the lake holds 122 different species including 12 invasive species. The lake's main fish species include chinook/king salmon, coho salmon, rainbow trout, brown trout, lake trout, northern pike, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, walleye and carp. Lake Ontario is famous for it's fantastic salmon fishery and that's one of our main target species at Midway Charters.

The fish species listed below are the ones that we target and catch on our charter trips.

Angler showing off a large Lake Ontario king salmon.

Lake Ontario Chinook/King Salmon

Why do we call a chinook salmon a "king" salmon? Because in Lake Ontario they really are the king when it comes to desirability. King salmon were first stocked by New York in 1873 and then further stocked sporadically throughout the century. Since around 1970 New York has heavily stocked Lake Ontario for a couple decades establishing a population of self-sustaining king salmon. The Salmon River has been producing large but variable spawns. Unfortunately, however, inadequate nursery habitat in tributaries is a limiting factor which prevents naturally reproduced fish from supplying enough salmon to provide the fishery we now enjoy.

They grow quickly averaging from 8 to 25 pounds with some real bruisers up to 35 pounds. The NY state record is currently 47 pounds 13 oz. which was caught in 1991 but many believe it is just a matter of time before it will broken again.

Chinook prefer colder temperatures with their optimal location in Lake Ontario being right around 53F degrees. As the water warms they will continue to push further offshore staying near cooler waters and keying on schools of baitfish. Our best time of year for targeting king salmon is usually July and August. Trolling spoons using downriggers near marked baitfish schools is always a good bet.

Angler showing off a large Lake Ontario coho salmon.

Lake Ontario Coho Salmon

Although previously stocked in Lake Ontario but not self-sustainable, coho salmon were successfully introduced into the Great Lakes in 1966 by Michigan and New York. In the early 70's New York began a more aggressive stocking program of this North Pacific species. New York currently stocks 250,000 coho annually into Lake Ontario and its tributaries. Although natural reproduction has been documented, the fishery is largely sustained through stocking.

Coho salmon are an aggressive hard fighting species which will snap twist hard on the line and sometimes even jump. Larger coho will feed primarily on smelt and alewives, but they are opportunistic and will feed on any available forage the proper size. Spring and summer caught coho are known for being excellent on the grill.

Coho salmon are deep bodied but thin from side to side. They will have a blue or green back with silver sides and a white belly. Unlike the chinook salmon which has a fully spotted tail, the coho has limited spots on the upper section of the tail only.

On Lake Ontario cohos provide us with an additional species to catch during the spring brown trout fishery and then in the offshore summer fishery. Once the fall tributary spawning migrations begin the coho become an important part of that fishery. Our state record is 33lb 7 oz.

Angler showing off a large Lake Ontario Atlantic salmon.

Lake Ontario Atlantic Salmon

In early America the Atlantic salmon were extremely prolific in Lake Ontario particularly the Salmon River where thousands could be harvested every night. By 1898 fishing pressure, agriculture, construction of dams, deforestation and pollution all helped devastate the entire population. New York has been restocking the Atlantic salmon since 1989 but without removal of important dams and agricultural runoffs these efforts have only been slightly successful. Atlantic salmon spend two to six years of their juvenile lives in streams which must have suitable water quality and clarity with gravel bottoms for the spawning. Future efforts to improve these streams would greatly improve the Atlantic salmon populations.

The Atlantic salmon is a slender fish whose Latin name means "the leaper." Its distinctive characteristics make the Atlantic salmon easy to recognize. It has a small head, blunt nose, small eyes, and a mouth that gapes back below its eye. The Atlantic salmon has no spots on its tail. The mouth contains a row of stout, conical teeth. Atlantic Salmon have a milder flavor than other wild salmon. The flesh ranges from pink to orange. The flesh has a medium-firm texture with large flakes and a medium fat content.

The primary prey fish in Lake Ontario is the alewife, a type of herring native to the Atlantic Ocean that invaded the Great Lakes over 100 years ago. The current New York state record Atlantic Salmon is 24 lb. 15 oz. and it was caught in Lake Ontario in 1997.

Angler showing off a large Lake Ontario steelhead.

Lake Ontario Steelhead (Rainbow) Trout

Rainbow trout and steelhead trout are the same species, but they have different lifestyles. Steelhead are migratory rainbow trout which means they spend part of their lives in Lake Ontario before going to rivers to breed. Lake Ontario rainbow trout spend their lives mostly or entirely in freshwater tributaries.

There are two distinct strains of migratory rainbow trout called "steelhead" are stocked into Lake Ontario. These are Washington (a winter run strain) and Skamania (a summer run strain); both originally came from the State of Washington. All rainbow trout strains are native to Pacific coast watersheds of North America and Asia. Rainbow trout were brought east to New York State beginning in 1874.

In addition to the two strains of steelhead rainbow trout NY stocks a domestic strain rainbow trout into Lake Ontario. These domestic rainbows may look different from steelhead but all rainbow strains are classified as being in the same genus and species: Oncorhynchus mykiss and exhibit similar behaviors. Currently 75,000 of these domestic rainbows are stocked annually in harbor areas around Lake Ontario.

Ontario steelhead is basically a migratory rainbow trout and is arguably the hardest fighting fish in Lake Ontario with fresh run fish pulling hard and often leaping multiple times with seemingly endless endurance. Steelhead have an aversion to bright light so on sunny days fishing is best at first light and again during the last hour of daylight. On overcast, rainy days steelhead will remain active and moving all day. The longer a steelhead is in the tributary the darker its color so conversely the longer it has been in the Lake the more it is colored in a mint silver coloration.

We don't usually target steelhead because they are more rare in our fishing than some of our other more targeted species. However steelhead trout during the can be a nice bonus to some fantastic brown trout and lake trout fishing. The NY State record steelhead is 31 lbs 3 oz. caught nearby in 2004.

Angler showing off a large Lake Ontario brown trout.

Lake Ontario Brown Trout

The brown trout has long been a popular game fish all over the world. Brought over from Europe in the 1880s, brown trout can be found in waters all across New York State. Brown trout are primarily found in tributaries but also live in Lakes Ontario. As the name implies, brown trout are brown in color with black and often red spots on the sides. However, in large bodies of water, fish tend to be silvery with scattered black spots. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Resources Bureau of Fisheries plans to stock about 455,000 yearling brown trout into Lake Ontario each year.

Spring time on Lake Ontario generally means fantastic brown trout fishing. Brown trout are found along much of the shoreline. The warmer water along shore or at tributary mouths attracts baitfish, which in turn attracts the brown trout. Brown trout begin their assault on baitfish clouds along the shores of Lake Ontario just after the ice-out. From the middle of April until the end of June brown trout can be found in warm water pockets. The brown trout’s fighting determination and strange appearance make them an important catch in Lake Ontario. When browns are on the feed, they gorge themselves which is how they get that football shape.

In Lake Ontario, brown trout can be caught at any time of the day and usually reside deep at point where the thermocline meets the bottom in summer. The New York State Brown Trout record stands at 33 pounds 2 ounces, caught in 1997 in Lake Ontario. April through June is the peak season for bronw trout on Lake Ontario. The NY State brown trout record stands at 33 pounds 2 ounces, caught in 1997 in Lake Ontario.

Angler showing off a large Lake Ontario lake trout.

Lake Ontario Lake Trout

Lake Trout have been native to Lake Ontario since last glaciers 10,000 years ago. They are the largest native salmon species inhabiting Lake Ontario with some weighing more than 40 pounds and can grow to over three feet long. Lake trout always were an important part of a balanced food ecosystem in Lake Ontario until fishing pressure and over-harvest, habitat destruction and invasive species all but wiped them out by the 1960's. In the 1970s, a large scale stocking and restoration project was initiated and the lake trout population in Lake Ontario began to slowly rebound. In recent years, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of lake trout born in the wild from stocked parents. Although this is encouraging for the future of the species in Lake Ontario, it is still somewhat of a mystery as to how these fish behave in the wild and what is causing the increase in naturally reproduced fish.

There is a legitimate worry that efforts to clean up Lake Ontario to help lake trout populations is actually making the lake too clean! Non-native invasions of zebra and quagga mussels that filter plankton from the water column (each mussel can filter up to a liter a day!) rob important baitfish like alewives of an extremely important food source. If the baitfish struggle, the fish that eat them, gamefish like steelhead, chinook salmon and Atlantic salmon begin to decline as well.

In spring and summer lake trout are usually found actively feeding in the 50-foot depth range or where the thermocline meets the 50 foot depth. It's impossible to predict how many trout you can catch in a day. Lake Trout are very sensitive to changes in atmospheric pressure. They turn on-and-off like a light switch. To maximize your chances, the best time to fish lakers is when it's sunny and high pressure and the surface of the lake is dead calm. There is an old saying, "If the flies are biting, the lake trout are biting!" NY State record lake trout is 41 lbs 8 oz.

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